Category: King County

Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened

 

1. When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last month that the city would repair, rather than replace, the damaged West Seattle Bridge, she made an offhand comment that could have major implications for Sound Transit’s light rail project if it turns into policy: The new light rail bridge connecting downtown to West Seattle, she said, should include crossings for pedestrians and cyclists as well as light rail itself. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said.

Sound Transit is facing a revenue shortfall of $8 billion to $12 billion over the life of the Sound Transit 3 program due to the COVID-fueled economic downturn. Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Durkan’s office and Seattle Department of Transportation Staff “informed us of the mayor’s idea prior to her announcement but there were not any substantive discussions” about how the bridge would need to be revamped to accommodate other, non-light rail modes and how much additional time and cost such changes would add to the project.

Sound Transit is scheduled to publish the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project in mid-2021; that document will only include the light-rail-only options that the agency has considered so far, “consistent with the ST3 plan,” Cunningham said. During their conversations with the mayor’s office, “Sound Transit staff noted that the voter-approved ST3 plan only authorizes construction of a light rail bridge. Changing that plan to a multi-modal crossing would require additional funding from alternative sources as well as additional planning time” to accommodate things like supplementary design work and additional environmental review.

The steep grades required for an elevated rail line across the Duwamish River crossing could be an issue for people walking, biking, or rolling as well. Any changes to the current plan would likely require review and action by the Sound Transit board, Cunningham said.

In a promotional email sent on Tuesday, Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan wrote that his new podcast could become “an effective tool to push back against the progressive march to socialism.” The first episode of Hold the Line with Mike Solan (rhymes if you say it with a Southern accent!) appeared on YouTube the same day; the featured guest was Victoria Beach, the chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council.

Solan opened his debut appearance with a call for unity, then pivoted to denounce a legislative proposal by city council member Lisa Herbold as a “preposterous” attempt to “legalize most crime.” (The legislation he was referring to would not “legalize most crime”; it would create new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder). But, Solan added, he’s open to bringing Herbold on the podcast to “talk it out.”

After a jarring transition involving a clip from the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day, Solan introduced Beach, a close ally of retired Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best who made periodic appearances at protests on Capitol Hill this summer.

Beach, a lifelong Seattleite, told Solan she “grew up hating police.” Her nephew was beaten bloody more than a decade ago; in 2000, two SPD officers pointed guns at her 5-year-old daughter while responding to an erroneous call from a white college student about a stolen car. Solan interrupted her as she told this story to explain why officers might point guns at children during “high risk felony stop[s],” but Beach forged ahead. “I’ve never had a positive experience,” she said. “Nothing positive?” he asked, sounding hurt.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

During an hour-long conversation, Solan occasionally ventured toward self-reflection, at one point noting that his hunger as a rookie patrol officer for “action” and car chases in  the Rainier Valley was immature. But he also repeatedly minimized the significance of race in policing: he expressed discomfort with the “social justice term ‘white privilege'” because of his hard-working two-parent upbringing; he dismissed racial profiling by police as the consequence of inexperienced cops with “bad intuition”; and he lamented the public’s tendency to focus on “about 30 cases a year” in which police kill unarmed Black people when “most people killed by police are white.” When Solan commented that “there are racist cops, but there are racist plumbers and racist teachers,” Beach intervened. “But plumbers and teachers don’t carry weapons,” she said.

3. King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin—whose press conferences often feature stark reminders about COVID morbidity and phrases like “unprecedented death and devastation”—said Friday that even if the health department gets access to a vaccine, it may have to lay off the workers who would administer it to low-income and homeless people around the county. Continue reading “Durkan’s Pedestrian Bridge Idea Raises Feasibility Questions, SPOG President Debuts New Podcast, and Homeless Vaccinations Threatened”

Homelessness Authority Weighs In On Battle Over Future of Renton Shelter (and Shelters in Renton)

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Regional Homelessness Authority held a previously unscheduled meeting of its implementation board last night to discuss how to respond to a city of Renton proposal that would shut down a shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at the Red Lion hotel in Renton. The legislation would also ban most, if not all, homeless shelters from the city.

PubliCola reported on the plan last week. Essentially, the legislation would create a temporary “COVID deintensification shelter” zoning designation for the Red Lion, which would expire in June, when the hotel’s 230 residents would be forced to leave the premises. At the same time, it creates new restrictions on all facilities serving homeless residents—including a 100-bed maximum and a requirement that appears to make providers responsible for the behavior or homeless people in public spaces—that homeless service providers say are impossible to meet.

Some members of the RHA implementation board, including Lived Experience Coalition members Sara Rankin and Harold Odom, argued that the board needed to take a strong stand in favor of the regional approach Renton signed up for when it joined the RHA. In addition to being “onerous” and undercutting the ability of any homeless service provider to operate in Renton, Rankin said, the legislation represents a “fracturing” that “undercuts the whole spirit and substance of what the purpose of this regional authority is supposed to be.” The Sound Cities Association, which includes Renton, demanded and got changes to the authority’s governing structure along with two seats on the implementation board last year.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, no secondary businesses behind the scenes.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Others, including Renton School District superintendent Dr. Damien Pattenaude and Church Council of Greater Seattle president Michael Ramos, argued that it was important not to alienate the Renton council by suggesting that the city of Renton didn’t have the right to set its own homelessness policy. “The question of the role of this authority is significant, and one of the underlying factors is the perceived imposition by the county of its [own] proposed solution on homelessness,” Ramos said. “We need to bring some of these cities into the conversation.” Ramos added that he would not sign off on any letter that didn’t express a willingness to work with Renton on a consensus solution.

In joining a regional authority, Renton agreed to the basic principles set down in the interlocal agreement, which include “housing first” principles, best practices, and evidence-based solutions. “Best practices” is generally understood to mean approaches that have a demonstrated record of success, which describes the Red Lion in particular and hotels as a temporary shelter option during the COVID-19 pandemic broadly.

Odom objected strongly to the idea that the regional authority should take a conciliatory approach when dealing with cities that want to split off from the region and adopt policies contrary to RHA principles. If the regional authority allowed every city who disagreed with some aspect of its approach to split off on its own, he said, it would mean a return to the same old system that has failed to reduce homelessness in the region for decades. “We have the five-year plan, the ten-year plan, and [we’re going to have] the 100-year plan if we continue going about things the way we have been,” Odom said.

Ultimately, the board voted to form a committee that will write a letter to the council expressing some level of opposition to the legislation evicting the Red Lion tenants and using zoning to restrict homeless services. They’ll have to act fast: The council plans to vote on the legislation Monday—a move that could prompt litigation from both DESC and the hotel’s owner, whose attorney said he “faced unbelievable discrimination and harassment, including from some of the folks who are advocating for this particular ordinance change.”

Renton Council Tries Land Use Maneuver to Evict Red Lion Homeless Shelter

Image via Red Lion Hotels

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday night, the Renton City Council held a meeting to discuss “emergency” legislation that was apparently so urgent, not even the groups that advocate for the people most impacted by the legislation were aware it was happening until a few hours before the meeting got underway.

The legislation: A zoning bill that would effectively force 260 formerly homeless people who have been living at a Red Lion in the city south of Seattle onto the streets in the middle of a global pandemic.

The city of Renton has been fighting to evict the hotel’s current occupants—former clients of the overcrowded downtown Seattle shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center— since shortly after they moved in nine months ago. Arguing that DESC was not operating a hotel but a “deintensification shelter,” which is not a permitted use on the Red Lion site (or anywhere in Renton, for that matter), the council issued a code violation against the hotel in June and ordered DESC to move out. That battle has been winding its way through the courts ever since.

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The council’s latest legislation would explicitly require the Red Lion to close its doors to shelter clients six months after the new law goes into effect, most likely around June 7. It also makes it impossible for a similarly sized shelter to open in Renton, by limiting all future shelter uses to 100 beds beginning on that date and imposing new requirements on homeless services that advocates say would be nearly impossible to meet.

“When you talk about having to pass this ordinance on an emergency basis, I wonder what that emergency looks like compared to the emergency of COVID-19, the emergency of homelessness, and the emergency of racism in our communities,” Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness director Alison Eisinger told the council, during a public comment session that lasted for nearly an hour. Noting that there are now at least 400 fewer shelter spaces in King County than there were before the pandemic, Eisinger added, “every single bed, every room, is helping keep the spread of COVID down and is helping [save] people’s lives.”

The legislation would ask homeless service providers to ensure that clients use specific routes when traveling through Renton; order them to monitor the behavior of homeless people in public spaces around the city, such as parks, libraries, and transit; and make them legally responsible for the behavior of former clients they exclude from their facilities for behavioral or other issues.

Proponents of the legislation, such as Renton Chamber of Commerce director Diane Dobson, accused DESC’s homeless clients of causing crime and disorder in the city, saying that the number of 911 calls in the general vicinity of the hotel had gone up since its 230 residents moved in nine months ago. Dobson went so far as to suggest that the real victims of the whole situation were shopkeepers who are “losing a part of their soul” when they have to remove homeless people from their stores and kick sleeping people out of their doorways.

But forcing people from the Red Lion onto the streets of Renton seems unlikely to reduce their impact on the city. And at least one study, as well as compelling evidence from DESC clients themselves, have demonstrated that giving unsheltered people a safe, private place to stay doesn’t just benefit their physical and mental health—it also reduces their impact on the surrounding community. Continue reading “Renton Council Tries Land Use Maneuver to Evict Red Lion Homeless Shelter”

Morning Fizz: City Will Repair West Seattle Bridge, Won’t Earmark License Fee for Bridge Maintenance

Image via City of Seattle

1. This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will repair, rather than replace, the West Seattle Bridge.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, repairing the bridge will cost around $47 million, plus an additional $50 million for “traffic mitigation” and ongoing maintenance of several hundred thousand dollars a year. Rebuilding the bridge would have cost between $310 million and $522 million, according to the city’s estimate.

The decision to repair the bridge doesn’t mean the city won’t have to replace it eventually. Instead, the repairs could extend the useful life of the bridge by up to 40 years—essentially, the length of time the bridge was expected to last until city crews discovered significant cracks in the structure and took the bridge out of commission earlier this year.

There is a possibility that the bridge could fail sooner than that—about 5 percent, according to a cost-benefit analysis by the engineering firm WSP that the city released last month. (For a detailed look at that analysis, which also includes higher long-term estimates that “monetize” certain risk factors and include inflation-adjusted maintenance costs over the remaining life of the bridge, I recommend Mike Lindblom’s October 20 piece in the Seattle Times.) SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said Tuesday that SDOT’s own experts “anticipate that we can get 15 years out of the bridge,” but added, “We can’t give a date certain on the point when the repairs will stop working.”

Durkan said Wednesday that she had been leaning toward replacing the bridge, but that a realistic timeline for what SDOT calls the “rapid replacement” option—”perhaps five years,” once time for environmental review and permitting is factored in—was just too long. “It became clear that the amount of money and the time it would take were not feasible options,” Durkan said. The city believes they can repair the bridge by mid-2022. Maintaining a repaired bridge will cost significantly more than maintaining a brand-new one, because engineers will have to inspect the bridge frequently to make sure that it isn’t showing signs of failure.

“It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing… so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan

Meanwhile, Sound Transit still plans to build its own light rail bridge connecting West Seattle to downtown parallel to the existing bridge. Durkan, who sits on the Sound Transit board, suggested that the new bridge should include bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said. “I think we need more transit capacity, more pedestrian capacity, and more bike capacity, so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”

Image via WSP

2. While Durkan and SDOT staffers were discussing the West Seattle bridge with press yesterday, West Seattle’s representative on the city council, Lisa Herbold, was making the case for a proposal she co-sponsored, along with Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, to use the proceeds from a $20 increase in the city’s vehicle license fee to pay for bridge maintenance, including on the West Seattle Bridge.

The vehicle license fee moved forward to a final vote on Wednesday, but it won’t be dedicated to bridges; instead, under a substitute offered by council president Lorena González, the city will adopt a spending plan for the proceeds from the fee— around $3.6 million next year, and $7.2 million a year after that—after a process to identify stakeholder priorities.

“I support a $20 increase to the vehicle license fee because I believe it is necessary to support ongoing operations of our city’s transit services and the maintenance of our transportation infrastructure and networks,” González said. “I do feel, however, that more work and stakeholder engagement must be done before we can decide how to appropriate this additional revenue.”

Herbold countered that the bridge maintenance proposal was an attempt to address problems identified last year by the city auditor, who found that “the City is not spending enough to keep its bridges in good condition and avoid costly future repairs,” particularly given the high number of bridges that are near the end of their useful lifespan. The city spends about $6.6 million each year on bridge maintenance, the audit found—”far below SDOT’s most conservative estimate of what is needed—$34 million.”

Under the plan adopted Tuesday and headed to final approval next week, the city will hold a three-month process to get input from stakeholders on how to spend the $20 fee, and adopt a plan by the middle of next year.

3. Next year’s King County budget will be almost 7 percent smaller than in 2020, thanks to cuts that fell heavily on the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and the King County Sheriff’s Office. The council opted for slightly smaller cuts to both departments’ budgets than County Executive Dow Constantine proposed in September: instead of an $8 million cut to the sheriff’s office, the council only cut around $6 million, amounting to less than 2 percent of the department’s 2019-2020 budget; the cut to the DAJD’s budget likewise totaled less than two percent of its budget.

The council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past.

The largest portion of the cut to the sheriff’s budget is $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue that the council voted to redirect toward anti-marijuana programming for youth and programs that help clear marijuana convictions from clients’ records. When Constantine proposed shifting marijuana tax revenue away from the sheriff’s office in September, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht publicly claimed that the move would cost the county as many as 30 officers, largely affecting residents of unincorporated King County. KCSO did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment.

However, the council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past. Several of the council members who voted to provide funding for the patrols expressed hesitation about their votes; when casting her vote in support, Council Chair Claudia Balducci commented that the county will eventually need to “back off and let Seattle patrol Seattle’s streets.”

The council’s budget package also included an array of provisos (spending restrictions) put forward by council members Girmay Zahilay and Dembowski intended to lay out a roadmap for downsizing the county’s law enforcement and detention operations. The provisos included directives for Constantine to assemble reports on the county’s juvenile detention center, fare enforcement officers, and school resource officers, and to provide the council with a plan to meet the goal of zero youth detention set by Constantine himself in July.

King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity”

King County Council member Rod Dembowski, in pre-COVID times (flanked, L-R, by King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott)

by Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council shelved a budget proposal by North Seattle council member Rod Dembowski yesterday that would have kept 47,000 hours of bus service inside Dembowski’s district after the Northgate light rail station opens next year. The proposal came in the form of a budget proviso, or restriction on spending, that would have withheld $5.4 million in funding for King County Metro unless the bus service went to North King County.

The hours will become available because King County Metro is shutting down its Route 41 bus line, which duplicates the light rail route. Instead of being redistributed throughout North Seattle to feed commuters to the new light rail line, as Dembowski proposed, those hours are likely to go to South King County, where King County Metro’s equity analysis shows the need is greatest.

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Dembowski argued that Metro’s usual practice is to reallocate service freed up by light rail into nearby neighborhoods, to make light rail more accessible. “We’re doing this all around the county,” he said. While this has been the practice in the past, it is not required—and Metro’s new Mobility Framework, created in collaboration with community groups over the past year, calls for new or reallocated service hours to go into communities where the need is greatest, regardless of where they originated.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity,” council member Dave Upthegrove, who represents South King County, says. “It goes around our established processes and guidelines, and that’s a dangerous road to go down.”

The debate, which centered on the question of what constitutes equitable transit service during a time of sweeping budget cuts, concerned a small slice of Metro’s overall budget. But it was also a preview for the battles that will play out over the next year, as Metro adopts new service guidelines that will benefit the county’s most underserved communities while diverting funds from areas that are, on average, wealthier and whiter.

“Every time there’s service changes, if we start to put our thumb on the scale or try and use the budget as a tool to try to slip through something that carves out hours, it undercuts established policies and it also undercuts our commitment to equity.”—King County council member Dave Upthegrove

Last year, before a global pandemic forced massive cuts to bus service and decimated transit agency revenues, King County Metro adopted a new “mobility framework” to guide future transit service decisions with an eye toward equity and economic and racial justice. The framework, developed by Metro in collaboration with an Equity Cabinet made up of 23 community leaders from across the county, was a precursor for revised Metro service guidelines, which will replace existing guidelines that emphasize ridership and geographic distribution, including in “areas where low-income and minority populations are concentrated.” Among other changes, the new framework recommends concentrating new (and reallocated) service in areas with high density, a high proportion of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those with limited English skills. 

Community members who turned out to speak against Dembowski’s proposal talked about the challenges they face as bus riders in South King County. Najhan Bell, a student and retail worker, described a grueling daily routine: Up at 9 to catch a 10:15 bus that will take her, via two transfers, to her noon-to-9 shift at IKEA in Renton; leave work at 9 to do the same grueling commute in reverse; and land home at midnight to study for a few hours before getting up to do it all again. Bell said that if Metro was going to uphold its commitment to equity, it “must continue to put efforts into increasing service in areas in South King County so that people like me don’t have to spend most of their day waiting on a bus.”

The members of the Equity Cabinet, along with Transportation Choices Coalition, Disability Rights Washington, and other advocacy groups, wrote a joint letter to the council on Tuesday opposing Dembowski’s amendment.

Continue reading “King County Council Debates Bus Service Priorities and the Meaning of “Equity””

Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted

By Erica C. Barnett

Renters across Washington state have existed in a kind of financial and legal limbo since mid-March, when Governor Jay Inslee issued the first statewide eviction moratorium, declaring that the temporary measure would “help reduce economic hardship and related life, health, and safety risks to those members of our workforce impacted by layoffs and substantially reduced work hours or who are otherwise unable to pay rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the time, no one knew how long the pandemic would continue or the impact it would have on the state and national economy. Since then, Inslee has extended the moratorium four more times, most recently in October, when he set a new expiration date of December 31.

But despite the moratorium, commonly referred to as an “eviction ban,” renters are still being evicted. Last month, nearly 40 people were evicted through the court system in King County, up from just 8 in April. (We know the numbers for King County because they’re tracked by the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, but a similar trend is almost certainly happening across the state). Added to that are an unknown number of people who are informally evicted through methods that, while not technically evictions, still have the same effect, their numbers never counted in the total of people forced to move—or made homeless—during a worldwide pandemic.

One reason more renters are being kicked out, tenant advocates say, is that Inslee has gradually added more and more exemptions to the “ban.” Most consequentially, in June, Inslee added a section to the moratorium in June allowing landlords to give tenants’ 60 days notice that they plan to sell a unit or move into it.

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Jim Baumgart, a senior policy advisor to the governor, said the exemption is intended to help people who own multiple properties and need to move into one or sell “because they don’t want to be a landlord anymore, or because their family’s been materially affected by COVID and they need that money.” For example, people in the military, who move around often, might need to move back to their hometown and have no choice but to move into a house they had been renting out, or a landlord who owned just one or two rental units might need to sell a property to stay afloat.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents rental property owners and has been critical of the eviction moratorium, argues that the sale or move-in exemption provides a necessary escape hatch for the smallest landlords. Kyle Woodring, RHA’s director of government affairs, says the RHA has been hearing from “more people working through the process of selling their property” than usual, because their income (from rent or other sources) has dried up and “they need to get some cash out of that property.

“It’s easy for local governments and state governments to protect tenants, and much harder to protect people who pay mortgages and the lending institutions, because those are generally federally regulated,” Woodring said. “Short of giant bailouts, I think we’re going to see more and more people looking to sell.” Continue reading “Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted”

Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context

1. Last month, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff scoffed at the suggestion that the regional transit agency should stop sending riders to court over unpaid fines for fare evasion, arguing that efforts by King County Metro to offer alternative dispute resolution options have been a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said.

Rogoff’s number is correct—of the 4,039 fare violations Metro recorded in 2019, 403 were resolved (meaning that the person either paid a fine directly to Metro, added money to their ORCA card in lieu of a fine, or used another alternative resolution route), according to Metro’s latest fare violation report, issued last April. However, that statement is missing some important context about the mission and purpose of transit. And it ignores the fact that a 10 percent resolution rate actually represents a significant improvement over the previous resolution rate of just 3 percent under the previous, punitive system, in which all unpaid fines went to court and collections.

Fare enforcement has been a contentious issue for Sound Transit, where failure to provide proof of payment to fare inspection officers can result in a $124 fine plus late fees, damage to credit, and even misdemeanor charges if a rider fails to pay their fine. The agency has agreed to make some changes to its policies, including new uniforms, clearer signage, additional warnings, and lower fines.

But they have resisted adopting alternative resolution options for people who can’t pay, arguing that this concession would reduce revenues as people realized there was no real penalty for nonpayment, raising costs to taxpayers and potentially impacting future capital projects or service. (For perspective, fare evasion cost Sound Transit, on net, around $550,000 last year.)

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The debate over fare evasion is really about the purpose of transit and the mission of transit agencies.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer says the agency’s fare enforcement policy isn’t primarily about fare revenue at all. In taking fare enforcement out of the court system and offering alternatives to fines, “Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement,” he said. This goal is reflected in Metro’s fare enforcement mission statement: “to help minimize King County Metro Fare Enforcement Program’s contribution to negative outcomes for some of King County Metro’s most vulnerable riders.”

“Our goal was to decriminalize fare evasion and work to get fare resources into riders’ hands,” while “reducing and minimizing harm to people and not involving law enforcement.” — Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer

But even Sound Transit’s more conventional fare enforcement mission—”to understand the impacts of our current program and develop recommendations that provide an equitable and customer-focused experience, including safety for all riders and integrity of decision making, while ensuring strong financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars—is still compatible with adopting a more lenient fare enforcement policy. That’s because in reality, few riders on either system actually fail to pay their fare.

Historically, Metro has set a fare evasion target of no more than 5 percent; in 2019, actual fare evasion on routes where Metro deploys fare enforcement officers averaged 4 percent, down from 5 percent the previous year. If the argument for sending people to court for failure to pay a $3 fare rests on the argument that not doing so will lead to rampant fare evasion, Metro’s example is showing that, so far at least, this worst-case scenario has not come to pass.

2. The city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan got some good budget news for once on Monday, when the city budget office issued a new revenue forecast for 2020 and 2021 that adds $36 million to the city’s general fund in 2020 and $32.5 million in 2021. The CBO attributed the new, higher projections to increased sales and business and occupation (B&O) taxes between July and September, “driven by significant improvement in the national and regional economic forecasts, particularly employment, personal income and personal outlays.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Some Good Budget News, a Durkan Departure, and Putting Fare Evasion in Context”

Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?

Mockup of new, clearer signage Sound Transit has proposed to reduce fare evasion and errors

1. Sound Transit board members had some pointed questions for agency CEO Peter Rogoff on Thursday, when staffers presented the agency’s plan to address concerns about fare enforcement to the board.

The proposed changes, which come after months of community outreach and both onboard and online surveys, include new signage that will indicate more clearly that people must pay fare in order to enter light rail stations; reduced fines for people who still fail to pay their fare; more warnings before a rider receives a fine; and new, in-house “fare education ambassadors” who will replace the private security guards who currently check fares and issue citation.

Board members, including Joe McDermott (West Seattle), Claudia Balducci (Bellevue), Victoria Woodards (Tacoma), Dave Upthegrove (Federal Way), and Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, wanted to know why Sound Transit staff have not proposed taking fare evasion and fines out of the court system, as King County Metro has done. Failure to pay fare on Sound Transit’s system, which includes Link Light Rail as well as express buses and Sounder trains, can result in a $124 fine plus late payments and potential criminal penalties if a rider does not pay the penalty. Unpaid fines can end up in collections and can damage a rider’s credit for years.

What would it take, Balducci asked, to get the staff to take requests from board members seriously and come up with a plan that didn’t expose riders to financial hardship and a potential criminal record for failing to pay a $3 fare?

“The challenge we have is figuring out for those folks who are persistent fare violators and are not among those classes that I just cited—people who clearly are economically distressed or are drug-addicted or homeless—what, then, do we do, if not the courts?” Rogoff said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people fit into the category of “persistent fare violators” that Rogoff described. According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham, about 7.6 percent of riders did not pay their fares in October. (Sound Transit has been charging fares since July, after making rides free for several months in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, fare enforcement officers do not scan riders’ cards individually to see if they’ve paid their fare; instead, they ask riders to show that they have a card or a ticket.)

“Fares are critical to pay for transit services, and Peter’s comments referenced concerns about the potential level of non-compliance that could result if penalties were reduced to the point that it became known over time that there was little or no consequence for fare evasion,” Cunningham said. “The result of that would be increased costs for taxpayers and potential impacts on projects and services. It can be reasonably assumed that some segment of riders, potentially increasing over time, would respond with chronic fare evasion.”

But there may be an additional reason Sound Transit is so reluctant to bring fare evasion penalties in-house. “State law vests the District Court with exclusive jurisdiction to impose fines for fare evasion infractions,” Cunningham says. In other words: The state legislation that created the agency establishes that failing to pay fare is a civil infraction that must go through district court. Taking fare enforcement out of the jurisdiction of local courts might require a change in state law. Historically, Sound Transit has tried to avoid reopening its authorizing legislation, since Republican legislators have tried to change it in the past to, for example, make Sound Transit’s board an elected body.

“Difficult” is not the same thing as “impossible.” But any major changes to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policy would require a significant shift in thinking at the agency about its mission as well as the reasons people don’t pay fares. Rogoff’s response indicated that his longstanding position on “fare evasion”—a concept that implies conscious ill intent, if not outright criminality—has not changed, even as the political environment in Seattle and across the country undergoes a seismic shift.

At a time when agencies at all levels of government are working to undo and prevent future harm to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, Rogoff is still drawing distinct lines between the people who don’t deserve to get caught up in the criminal justice system—”someone who’s poor… someone who’s homeless, someone who’s drug-addicted”—and the modern-day turnstile jumpers who will keep robbing the system unless there are harsh consequences when they do.

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

During yesterday’s meeting, Rogoff suggested that King County’s alternative fine resolution program, which is intended for people who can’t pay that agency’s $50 maximum fine, has been something of a failure. “Within King County, some 90 percent of [alternative resolution participants] never show up for their appointment and then nothing becomes of those cases, which is to say that there is no consequence for persistent violators in that circumstance,” Rogoff said. “We need a better mousetrap, and we’re trying to figure that out with the community and with King County Metro.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: What Is Transit For?”

Next Month, King County Voters Will Decide On the Future of the Sheriff’s Office. Here’s What’s at Stake

by Paul Kiefer

A pair of amendments to the King County charter on the ballot next month open a door for significant reshaping of the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). The measures have sparked two opposition campaigns — one closely tied to the King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG), which represents sheriff’s officers — that have cast the amendments as radical attacks on law enforcement, while the measures have received limited vocal support from the most prominent local police accountability advocates.

The first amendment, Charter Amendment 5, would make the King County Sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position. The second, Charter Amendment 6, would grant the King County Council the ability to set the structure and duties of the sheriff rather than relying on the duties specified in the state code. While the amendments’ sponsors, including council members Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay (who wrote a PubliCola op ed supporting it), crafted the ballot measures to stand independently of one another, their practical implications and political significance have bonded the two measures together. In fact, in a July 14th council meeting, council member Claudia Balducci called them the legislative equivalent of a “Reese’s peanut butter cup”: a natural pair.

For their most vocal proponents, namely Dembowski and Zahilay, the amendments are vital steps towards an accountable sheriff’s office with a more appropriate scope of duties and a sheriff that better represents the needs of the King County residents they serve. The opponents of the amendments, including the sheriff’s guild, cast the measures as part of the broader “defund” movement to undermine law enforcement and as a power grab by the executive and the council.

As contemporary as those arguments may seem, they’re part of a longstanding debate in King County. In November, voters will face a choice between two paths for KCSO; both have been tested in the county before, and neither has transformed the department in the ways the amendments’ opponents fear or the ways their champions hope.

Continue reading “Next Month, King County Voters Will Decide On the Future of the Sheriff’s Office. Here’s What’s at Stake”

By Opting Out, Suburban Cities Could Blow an $8 Million Annual Hole in Homeless Housing Plan

Image via King County.

By Erica C. Barnett

At least half a dozen cities have chosen to opt out of a proposed countywide “Health Through Housing” sales tax increase that would provide permanent supportive housing for an estimated 2,000 chronically homeless people.

The cities, which include Renton, Issaquah, Kent, and Covington, will use authority granted by the legislature this year to impose their own 0.1 percent sales tax for affordable housing, a category that includes not just housing for very low-income people but “workforce housing” for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle-area median income.

The council’s committee of the whole voted 8-1 on Tuesday to approve the countywide tax measure, which would impose an additional 0.1 percent sales tax on purchases throughout King County, on Tuesday, and the full council will vote on the tax proposal next week. Assuming it passes, the county will have to come up with a plan to spend the money.

But how much money will there be? The county originally estimated that the tax would bring in a little under $68 million in 2021; bonding against half that revenue stream, the maximum allowed under state law, could give the county around $400 million to purchase sites and turn them into affordable housing. The cities that have opted out of the tax so far have taken more than $8 million off the table. That brings the county’s annual revenues down to just under $60 million.

Leo Flor, the director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services, says the county needs between $27 million and $30 million a year (that is, half of $54 to $60 milliion) to purchase bonds worth $400 million. The county could hit that threshold, if retail sales don’t slip below forecasts and if no more cities pull out of the taxing district. “We’re still moving forward,” Flor said Thursday, but “every dollar counts. Even at the full size [with every city opting in], 2,000 people is less than half of the people experiencing chronic homelessness in King County right now.”

Issaquah’s tax, Flor notes, will expire if the city signs a memorandum of agreement with the county to allocate the revenues raised within Issaquah to projects in that city. If revenues prove too low to fund a $400 million housing measure, the county could opt to build less housing.

No matter how much money the county brings in, the plan will require a change in state law to allow the county to purchase distressed properties, such as hotels and nursing homes, and convert them into permanent supportive housing. 

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.